New York City • On a muggy but cloud-covered day in July, my son Jack and I boarded a ferry and joined the mass of tourists crowding the decks and aiming for an unobstructed view of the Statue of Liberty.
We had done our homework, so my great-grandparents and their journey from Italy in 1920 were on our minds as we approached the hulking green monument.
Later, at a tour of Ellis Island, a ranger recounted his grandmother’s journey and imagined the awe the farmer’s daughter from a quiet village in Hungary must have felt entering the harbor. “You’re talking about a memory that will never be forgotten. Her mouth’s gotta be hanging open.”
He could have been talking about Jack this summer, at the beginning of our five-day mother-son trip to Manhattan. With the towering skyline at our backs and Lady Liberty, as he insisted on calling the statue, in our sights, his grin was infectious.
I, too, feel I am entering unknown territory, which is why I’ve brought Jack here as an admittedly over-the-top birthday present. He’s my oldest of three and will turn 10 on this trip. We are close, but we haven’t had this much alone time since he was an only child and not yet 2. And I sense big changes.
One day he refuses to walk home with us as we come home from school. He wants to speed ahead, alone, and listen to music on headphones in his room. The next day, he comes to my room seeking his beloved blue bunny — the one he’s had since he was 1 and still nuzzles like he did then. His newfound bulk is hard to reconcile; he runs in for a hug and I feel I’ve been tackled. He’s long past the time I can carry him, but he wants to be held.
Before our trip, I call a child-development professor to see what lies ahead and ask if I’m right to feel that he’s straddling two worlds, crossing back and forth between who he is as a child and finding his way as a budding teen.
“It’s very much that betwixt, between kind of thing,” Aryn Dotterer, an assistant professor in Utah State University’s Department of Family, Consumer and Human Development, tells me.
He and his 10- and 11-year-old peers are on the verge of developmental, social and intellectual changes as they transition to adolescence, she says. Even before Jack is a teenager, I can expect hormones, arguments and growth spurts. And friends will become more important. He must separate, she says, to find self-worth.
Then she tells me something that makes me tear up: Those endless childhood hours together are coming to a close. I need to pack in quality moments, ones that show him my love won’t change even as he does.
A mother-son trip is a chance, then, to suspend time, to hold on tight to that little boy who still likes hanging out with Mom, and also celebrate a bittersweet transition.
In our case, we took a summer trip. But you can make it a weekend getaway close to home. Or just a date night over fall break. The point, says Dotterer, is to keep connecting even as we naturally separate.
I will urge him to dream big when he imagines his future. And, with skyscrapers, cabs and people beyond and below us as we stand atop the Empire State Building on his birthday, I will put the world at his feet.
Here are our tips for making a solo trip memorable.
Follow your child’s interests
Jack’s fourth-grade teacher had a great idea last year: She allowed students to pick optional projects to complete each quarter to earn “degrees.” I strongly suggested (OK, required) that Jack research our family’s connection to Ellis Island. He interviewed my 92-year-old grandmother, whose parents emigrated from Italy in 1920, and made a slide presentation with pictures of their ship and passport photos. It made the ranger-led tour that much more interesting because we could picture our 20-something-year-old relatives, standing in the grand room surrounded by a cacophony of languages, awaiting inspection, fearful of being turned back.
For another “degree,” Jack researched the Empire State Building (and persuaded me that building a model of it in Minecraft was necessary work).
Here are other ways we prepared. Follow your child’s interest to see what works best for you.
• Read “Inside the Museum: A Children’s Guide to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” It offers fascinating facts to a kid about the museum (the Temple of Dendur’s massive blocks of stone weigh the equivalent of 114 school buses) and tidbits about exhibits from armor to Impressionist paintings that served as a roadmap for our visit.
• Watch the “NOVA” documentary “Engineering Ground Zero” about the construction of One World Trade Center and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. We didn’t visit the museum, but Jack was fascinated by the new tower and appreciated the reflecting pools that sit in Twin Towers’ footprints.
• Check out the family sections on the websites of museums you may want to visit. The Met’s is particularly good: It lists family-friendly tours and events, audio tours and an interactive map.
• Skip the lines and buy tickets online for museums, skyscrapers and Ellis Island. If you want to go inside the Statue of Liberty, you must buy tickets months in advance.
• Search for family-friendly things to do on mommypoppins.com.
The big APPle
Instead of waiting in line at Times Square at the TKTS booth, I bought last-minute tickets to the “School of Rock” musical through TodayTix app. We checked our bags at our hotel and met a representative from the company outside the theater about 30 minutes before the play, which was like a real rock concert to Jack.
The American Museum of Natural History app led us under the giant blue whale model in search of a belly button. The Empire State Building app tested our knowledge of lightning strikes and wedding ceremonies at the iconic skyscraper (and helped pass the time in lines). Its audio narrations brought the exhibits to life. And it named some of the buildings we sighted from the 86th-floor observatory.
My favorite, though, was the Central Park app. There are few signs in the park (so visitors will explore). And the company we rented bikes from handed us a map, but it directed us to irrelevant places like the fountain from the “Friends” opening montage. But the app found us standing before The Obelisk and listening to a short audio tour of how this 220-ton granite monument was made in 1450 B.C. in Egypt and brought to New York more than a century ago.
When we found the life-size sculpture of Prospero near the Shakespeare theater and read a description on the app, it made Jack wonder what ”The Tempest” was about.
And it led to one of my favorite moments in the park: We learned of the “Whisper Bench” and went in search. A volunteer showed the way, noting that not even many New Yorkers know about it, and he pointed out the black line running from one curled side to another, declaring it the residue of sound waves from visitors’ shared secrets. The man asked if we knew what the three most whispered words were. Jack leaned into his curved corner and I hunched over to listen at mine, and he pronounced his guess: “I heart NYC.”
Take small bites
Piecing together a fossil skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History. Running shirtless through a water fountain at a playground in Central Park. Buying a pencil drawing of the skyline from the artist on the Brooklyn Bridge.
It was the small moments for Jack that made a big impression in a city too vast to take in, even through we tried mightily.
With its limited entrance to children ages 5-12, the Discovery Room in the natural-history museum provides hands-on experiences that captivated Jack. While other kids palmed cockroaches, he intently placed rib bones in their spots on the life-size Prestosuchus reptile’s steel cage and then completed a scavenger hunt of birds and insects in a two-story African baobab tree replica.
When it was time to visit The Met, we picked one must-see exhibit (mummies) and spent an hour there, instead of trying to see it all.
He readily joined other kids at the East 96th Street Playground fountain, soaking himself while toddlers chased pigeons and two men laden with backpacks counted their tricep dips off the bars on a fort.
Take breaks (from each other)
I am a punishing cruise director. While I strove to plan just one thing a day, that instinct lost to the one that wanted Jack — OK, and me — to experience everything.
We often left the hotel by 8:30 a.m. and didn’t return until seven hours later for a break before heading back out. The day we walked through Chinatown (with stops to look at a Chinese candy shop with samples of salted red ginger and roasted squid) and over the Brooklyn Bridge, waded in the East River off the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, rode to Grand Central Terminal to marvel at the zodiac mural on the sky ceiling, and later followed the crowds along the East River pedestrian path near the Queensboro Bridge to watch the July Fourth fireworks wasn’t atypical.
One day, Jack’s watch logged 22,214 steps, or about 11 miles. So I didn’t feel bad letting him veg out on the NBA Live app in our hotel room.
I followed the sounds of a jazz trio spilling out onto the street from a nearby hotel lounge that acts as a part-time flower market and is decorated with succulents and sprigs of lavender and rosemary.
Jack would get his treat, too. The respite fortified us for dinner at the crowded Chelsea Market and a walk along the High Line Park before ending the day at a candy shop near Union Square Park, where Jack ate from a $20 bag of goodies. “This,” he said, shoveling a handful of jelly beans in his mouth, “is every kid’s dream.”